I was in Bogota last week for a couple days of mentoring startups with the Founder Institute; the topic of the week was revenue generation, something we do a lot of at YouSendIt (my first company). But everyone knows the real currency of most early stage deals is user acquisition and I was peppered with questions about how PunchTab reached 1.2 million users, registered 15,000 members, and signed up over 250 sites in the month of May alone, less than five months after our first day in the office. Here’s one part of my answer:
Over the years I’ve developed my favorite tactics for raising awareness about my products and one of the most cost-effective has been “hacking PR”: getting into the heads of writers (primarily tech bloggers) and figuring out why they should cover you. Here’s the only takeaway you need from this post: your job is to pitch stories that generate lots of pageviews, otherwise you’re wasting the writer’s time. Read on for a handful of patterns that always generate discussion and have a higher likelihood of getting written up. Hopefully you have some material up your sleeve to make the cover of TechCrunch too.
Well before starting PunchTab I already knew two (asterisked below) of the three stories we could tell that would absolutely be covered. I didn’t know for sure if we could get a TechCrunch hat-trick in three months, but we had a good shot. And if we pulled it off we could maybe write a cool post on our own blog…
Three stories we could tell, sequenced appropriately:
1. *Founder of X starts Y. Even better if the band gets back together. (This doesn’t work if nobody ever cared about X.)
2. Y’s product can be used by bloggers. (Not a slam dunk for two reasons: you need to build a good product and the individual writer needs to see his way to becoming a user. There’s no cheating here, just good old value creation.)
3. *Y raises money. (’nuff said.)
These were the cards we had to play. Here’s how it went down:
We were going to SXSW, really as a team-building exercise, with nothing to talk about. Sure, we could have gone with “Hey, when you sober up why don’t you go to PunchTab.com and sign up to be a beta user of our web-based instant loyalty platform!”, but I knew we could do better. In 10 days we built our first mobile reference app, SolidPunch, and tied in some exclusive SXSW offers for good measure. To generate at least a little bit of buzz for PunchTab before SXSW we played our first card:
Co-founder of YouSendIt gets the band back together to start PunchTab. A quick email to the folks at TechCrunch and we received a nibble back the same day to schedule a product demo and discuss details of what the company is up to. Leena made it clear that she wouldn’t write two articles (shucks) so we showed off SolidPunch and gave her a preview of our web loyalty platform; the article was written. The app was downloaded hundreds of times before SXSW (we convinced many more to try it out before they sobered up) and over 200 site-owners joined our private beta to build instant loyalty. (That’s right, instantly!)
After the initial TechCrunch spike we had enough friendly site-owners testing our stuff that we quickly rounded out the product, often interviewing multiple users per day to refine the roadmap. Somewhere in there we found our next card: the PunchTab giveaway widget. (For those of you who haven’t tried it you can make your giveaways crazy viral and integrate nicely with your loyalty program too.) And just like that…
PunchTab’s new giveaway module can be used by bloggers. Problem was that the folks at TechCrunch didn’t care; and I didn’t blame them, giveaways are not extremely common on the main blog… but what about CrunchGear? You know, where John and his crew review the coolest gadgets? I emailed John on a Saturday morning:
Me: Hi John, Saw the giveaway you’re doing this morning and wanted to point you to our new Giveaway Widget that lets you automate giveaways and see over 20% lift in entries because it is easier for the end user to join and has a viral invite loop that encourages sharing. We’d love to work with you on your next giveaway and I’d like to offer sponsoring your next giveaway as well.
John: sounds interesting. an ipad 2 next weekend?
This exchange took all of 37 minutes. On Friday at noon the giveaway started and featured our (now popular) giveaway widget; an hour later it was re-syndicated on TechCrunch and our numbers went through the roof.
We had a month left and I knew that we’d get the hat-trick. All we had to do was raise money from a prominent VC fund and all-star angels. And…
PunchTab raises money. Wait a minute, we had 30 days to raise money and get it written about and I *knew* we’d get the hat-trick? The truth is we closed our seed funding from an awesome set of investors way back in February but held the news back for months until people started to talk (Jason outed Chamath as an investor when I was on This Week In Statups), we were ready with momentum stats, and had a ton of meaningful references.
That’s the whole story of how PunchTab was featured on TechCrunch 3 times in 3 months.
Hacking PR has been very effective for us in building our userbase quickly. Now the viral loops that we’ve built into the service are starting to kick in and things are accelerating… but more on that in a future post.
Feel free to ask questions and share thoughts below (don’t forget to join our loyalty program to get credit) and follow us on Twitter for further hacks. We’d love to hear from you!
By the way, if anyone wants to write about the venture round that we may or may not have already closed just drop me a note.